If you're a fan of one of the third- through seventh-place teams, and you aren't extremely tense at all times these days, please let me know your secret? With just three weeks to go in the regular season, the playoff picture is really no clearer than it's been throughout 2018. North Carolina, Seattle, Portland, and Chicago are definitely the four best teams, but there's no certainty of either Portland or Chicago making it, and even Seattle, sitting in second, four points above the Thorns, has an outside chance of missing out.
So: a big week, with some teams playing great late-season soccer and others duking it out for the coveted Most Depressing title. Let's get to it:
Seattle Reign vs Chicago Red Stars (0-0)
Some scoreless draws are interesting tactical chess matches, while others are exciting shootouts marked by near misses and good saves. This one was just kind of frustrating. In another smoky game, played with four hydration breaks, Chicago dominated the first half but couldn't find the back of the net. Sam Kerr was in the right place at the right time a lot, but her final touch was off all night, and Lydia Williams was having a Game in goal for Seattle. With Yuki Nagasato coming in off the bench in the second half, Kerr was also tasked with putting chances together, but her service from wide areas left something to be desired.
Seattle came out swinging in the second half, with Jess Fishlock picking up a lot of the chance-creating burden left behind by an injured Megan Rapinoe, as well as getting a few close looks of her own.
The takeaway? Both teams came away frustrated with the draw, feeling they deserved to win, but from an outside perspective, both should feel pretty good about their performance, if not the result. This late-season clash between two good teams playing near their peak was always going to be difficult.
Houston Dash vs Washington Spirit (4-0 Houston)
Several things became clear as Houston dismantled the Spirit 4-0: first, the Dash are very much still in playoff contention; second, Washington are just dismally bad, unquestionably worse than winless Sky Blue.
Kealia Ohai opened the scoring in the 41st minute, assisted by Rachel Daly as well as the entirety of the Spirit defense and midfield, who don't even seem to be trying anymore. That's not to downplay a nice transition play by the Dash, starting with Daly receiving a pass from Clare Polkinghorne in Houston's defensive third, quickly laying it off to Linda Motlhalo, and sprinting up the wing to get on the end of Motlhalo's perfectly-weighted one-time ball upfield. Daly fell down as she squared the ball to Ohai, and a poorly-positioned Aubrey Bledsoe dove but couldn't get a hand on Ohai's shot.
Sofia Huerta had a brace in the second half, with one goal assisted by Taylor Comeau and one by Daly, both results of a Washington back line that seems to lack an understanding of the most basic defensive concepts. Kyah Simon closed the scoring out in the 84th minute, thanks to a cross from the left by Veronica Latsko and a misjudgment on Estelle Johnson's part.
The thing that's so painful about the Spirit this season is not how bad they are, but the fact that their roster, despite real deficiencies, is not terrible. There should be bright spots here, but pretty much everybody is playing to their worst potential most of the time. Part of a coach's job is to bring out the best in their players, and it gets clearer each week that Jim Gabarra is completely, utterly failing his team in that sense.
Sky Blue FC vs Utah Royals (2-2)
Which is worse: a team that never looks capable of scoring (Washington), or a team that keeps coming close to winning, but never does (Sky Blue)?
This one was an absolute stab to the gut for Sky Blue, with Katie Johnson scoring a brace only for Utah to get one back early in the second half and then equalize in stoppage time. Johnson's first goal, in the 14th minute, was a weird one: Rachel Corsie fouled Carli Lloyd just inside the 18, and when the expected whistle didn't come, Raquel Rodriguez plinked the ball through a clump of Royals defenders and in to Johnson, who sent a shot to the far post despite Katie Bowen dragging her to the ground. Her 48th-minute effort was also a little strange, but more attractive; after setting herself up by pinging the ball off a retreating Bowen's heels, she sent a nice curling ball to the far post from the edge of the penalty arc.
A weather delay in the 57th minute shifted the momentum in Utah's favor, as Amy Rodriguez bounced a shot off Domi Richardson for a Sky Blue own goal almost immediately. It was in the final seconds of stoppage time, after studiously running down the clock with toothless possession and slightly-too-long restarts, that the home team let Gunny Jónsdóttir send a cross in from the left. When Sky Blue didn't clear the ball, Christen Press knocked it back to a wide-open Rodriguez, who sent a rocket past Kailen Sheridan. The whistle blew, and most of the Sky Blue players collapsed to the turf as the agony of letting their first win of the season slip away set in. Shea Groom was in tears.
The big narrative in the wake of this one was the ref, who let stoppage time creep well into a fourth minute after putting three on the clock. That's normal, of course; stoppage time, after all, is always announced as "at least X minutes." What's strange here is that after the match, it was reported that the ref told Sheridan the stoppage-stoppage time was added because she was delaying play.
Sheridan didn't touch the ball during stoppage time.
Whether that apparent discrepancy comes from a misunderstanding somewhere in the post-match game of telephone between ref, player, and media, or whether the ref somehow mistook the keeper for someone else, one thing is clear: if he felt Sky Blue was wasting time, he should have awarded a yellow in the moment to whoever was doing so.
Regardless, you couldn't write an ending this cruel. Sky Blue were the better team in this game. Johnson came close to scoring another at least once. As Groom once said in an Instagram story, "I'm not saying there's a Sky Blue curse, but..."
Portland Thorns vs Chicago Red Stars (2-2)
After what was, for spectators, one of the more exciting games in recent memory, both teams were frustrated: neither came away happy either with their performance or with the officiating, which all involved seem to think favored the other side.
Post-game back in Seattle on Wednesday, Sam Kerr had issued a warning of sorts to the Thorns, saying, "I personally love going to Portland. The last time I went there, I had fun, scored two goals." That wasn't just an observation about how well Kerr has played at Providence Park, historically -- she had already scored two braces there before this weekend -- but an allusion to the fact that Chicago has done poorly against Portland, going winless against the Thorns in the last 13 matches.
In the end, the scoreline reflected both those histories. Kerr came away with another brace, one in the 44th minute off a giveaway by an overconfident Emily Sonnett, and a second early in the second half on a service into the box from Vanessa DiBernardo.
But other than Kerr, who was by far the most dangerous player Saturday night, Portland's defense stayed well-organized against the Red Stars. The home team dug themselves out of the two-goal deficit in the second half, after two 56th-minute subs -- Andressinha coming on for Celeste Boureille, and Caitlin Foord for Ana Crnogorčević -- totally changed the tone of the game. Tobin Heath scored the first in the 60th minute with her head, getting on the end of a ball Alyssa Naeher punched away and looping it into the back of the net. Nine minutes later she assisted a Christine Sinclair goal with a low cross from the right.
North Carolina Courage vs Orlando Pride (3-0 North Carolina)
The second game of the season to be postponed until the next day due to weather was cut short in the 22nd minute Saturday night, then resumed with the clock at that same time Sunday. If it looked for most of the game that maybe, just maybe, a backsliding Orlando team might be able to steal a result against the indomitable Courage, Lynn Williams put that possibility to bed in the 75th minute, running endline and sending in a shot that deflected off Shelina Zadorsky's foot as she tried to make the block. That deflection looked to have thrown Ashlyn Harris off, and she let the ball in at her near post.
North Carolina got two more to seal the deal, one nailed to the top of the net by Debinha in the 81st minute after Williams fought it out with Ali Krieger and knocked the ball loose near the left edge of the six-yard box, and a third in the 88th, a simple header by an unmarked Williams off a Merritt Mathias service.
In a weird quirk, the schedule this week includes a Tuesday-night matchup between Seattle and Houston. Two Wednesday games wrap up the midweek slate, followed by four on Saturday. Lots of teams have a lot to lose (or win) in the playoff race; Houston will need a result against Seattle if they want to keep their playoff hopes alive, while Orlando will be in desperation mode against Chicago.
Tuesday, August 21
- Seattle Reign vs Houston Dash (7:30 PM Pacific/10:30 PM Eastern; NWSLsoccer.com)
Wednesday, August 22
- Washington Spirit vs Utah Royals (4:30 PM Pacific/7:30 PM Eastern; NWSLsoccer.com)
- Portland Thorns vs Sky Blue FC (8:00 PM Pacific/11:00 PM Eastern; NWSLsoccer.com)
Saturday, August 25
- Seattle Reign vs North Carolina Courage (1:00 PM Pacific/4:00 PM Eastern; NWSLsoccer.com)
- Orlando Pride vs Chicago Red Stars (4:30 PM Pacific/7:30 PM Eastern; NWSLsoccer.com)
- Washington Spirit vs Portland Thorns (5:00 PM Pacific/8:00 PM Eastern; ESPNews)
- Houston Dash vs Sky Blue FC (5:30 PM Pacific/8:30 PM Eastern; NWSLsoccer.com)
Photo: Nikita Taparia